Earlier in the summer, a friend of mine told me that an Oberlin tour guide had told them in 2018 that 80% of the Oberlin student body identified as queer, and 15% as non-binary. To be completely transparent, when I told that to a gathering of people studying on the Latinx House patio late on a school night in early June, two people said at once, "Wait, really? Are you sure it's not more than that?"
So now you know. Pride Month is coming to a close, and I spent it on a campus where heteronormativity is not the air I breathe. In a place where "queer" has already lost the connotation of "strange," my queerness is not something I have to justify or even explain, even as I live an unapologetically lesbian life. The joy of it is that I get to feel normal.
I am not trying to advertise Oberlin as some kind of queer utopia. Among Oberlin students, words like "queer" and "gay" are too often conflated with one image of queerness— white, assigned female at birth (AFAB), able bodied, and butch/masculine. Among queer students, just as among straight students, there is still a desirability politics that centers and praises whiteness. There are also noticeably fewer openly queer assigned male at birth (AMAB) people on this campus than openly queer AFABs. On the flip side, specifically among white queer AFABs, I often notice masculine gender expressions being uplifted above all, which manifests as a peculiar and unexpected form of misogyny. The Oberlin queer community is far from perfect. Still, everywhere I look here, there is someone brave and wise enough to have found a new way to embrace their unique experience of gender and attraction or lack thereof. This is something that happens across all identities and can defy any of the flaws of Oberlin queer culture as readily as it can enforce them.
To recognize Pride Month, I wanted to leave a sample of multiple queer Obie voices. I asked five of my friends to anonymously answer the same question: "What is the difference between being queer here and being queer where you're from?" All of these responses come from people who were assigned female at birth. They hold a range of gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual/romantic identities. Here is what they had to say:
Being queer here is different because it feels more real. In both of the places that I'm from, queerness just feels like something that outside people experience, or that outside people are, or that outside people are inflicted by or victims of, at least in terms of my family's perspective. Also, it feels distant in the sense of just reading online about it and not knowing anyone personally who also experiences queerness, but like, at Oberlin, there are tons of people who are queer. I feel freer and more valid in exploring my queerness here than I would at home. It's really hard to feel valid at home and it's really easy to feel valid here. I think here it makes it easier to just, like, exist. I don't feel like I'm trying to be queer or performing as a queer person; I just am, and it's easier to accept nuances within that queerness. At home there's more anxiety attached to it.
The drawbacks of being queer here is that there is still very much, like, one narrative of what being queer means at Oberlin. It's always just white nonbinary Obies that are the face of queerness on campus, but like, moving and navigating through non-white spaces and still seeing queerness exhibited is a whole other world. That isn't talked about enough and isn't celebrated enough.
When I do see queerness represented in nonwhite spaces at Oberlin, it feels good. I feel like there's almost this battle in my head of like, wanting more narratives of queerness to be celebrated and brought up as a normal thing at Oberlin, but also not wanting to share that safe space either, because Oberlin students have a tendency to just be like, "Oh yeah, we wanna represent you now," and just like, overtake spaces and (unintentionally or intentionally) homogenize them into the greater white Oberlin face.
[Is there anything else you would like to add?]
Happy Pride! Pride was started by a Black trans woman, so remember that.
I guess being queer would be more, kind of like, nonexistent where I'm from— mostly because it is frowned upon. It's practically like saying a dirty word. Being here in Oberlin it's very different because, I mean, it's not like it's the norm… but it is. It's almost like if you're straight it's weirder. Or like, it's more rare here, because this is an LGBTQ+ friendly campus. So it feels a lot more welcoming and definitely more at peace because it's not like you have to hide anything, 'cause it's not something you should hide from anyone.
Definitely back at home I would feel very depressed, mostly because I couldn't be myself or mention, "Oh, I like X." I would most likely have to hide that part of myself just because I wouldn't want any negative confrontations. Here, I feel more at peace with who I am. Obviously if you're in an environment that is negatively looking down on you 'cause you're queer, then you're gonna start looking down on yourself. Here it's mostly like nobody really cares, so if you're queer, if you're straight, if you're bi, whatever… nobody questions it. They're like, okay, cool. Nice. I feel at peace; I feel welcomed.
So, I'm from New York City, and that's really amazing, but I also don't feel like there's space for the lesbian discourse that there is on this campus where I'm from because even though there are lesbian spaces in New York City and I can often find my community, I don't feel so secure in the fact that I never have to defend my lesbian identity. I feel a lot of trust that I am respected as a lesbian here and that people trust my identity— people trust that I am what I say that I am, which is something that's really unique to here. But still, I do feel like because I don't have to worry about those things there are other dynamics on campus that are stressful. Like, as a feminine transmasculine person, I sometimes feel like there's a hierarchy of butchness and that I am adjusting my masculinity to be seen as sexy and masc and butch enough.
Being queer at Oberlin is something that I feel super comfortable being proud of and visible, in the sense of, like, I don't feel like I am judged and I don't feel any kind of discrimination. I feel really comfortable discussing it with friends, and it is a topic that can bring people together. Especially in marginalized communities, celebrating POC queerness is something that I really feel happens a lot on this campus, compared to at home where it's not celebrated and respected and even— to a certain degree— acknowledged and accepted as a valid thing. It's not safe for me to come out to my family now just because of religious views and intergenerational differences and cultural differences in the sense of our understanding of queerness. I think it's also the relationship between religion and queerness, which is something I think about a lot at home, because my family is Roman Catholic— like the Latin American version of Roman Catholic. I consider myself to be a very religious person, and I'm bisexual. So you can be both, you can understand and mold the homophobic parts of your religion and exclude those in terms of your understanding of it and how you choose to feel spiritually and religiously. I feel like my family doesn't really understand that, and my community in general doesn't understand that quite yet. So kind of a subculture is developing in our community where those of us who are queer and are religious— speaking strictly in terms of Latin American Catholicism and stuff— we kind of are creating our own version of our understanding of Catholicism and our acceptance of it. And some people choose not to believe because of the homophobia, which is also extremely valid. I feel like here at Oberlin I am super upfront about it, comfortable with it, while at home I have to remain in the closet, but I think also for me personally it's not that huge of a challenge to remain in the closet because I'm not actively dating someone of the same gender as me. It's just very easy for me to pass as straight because I have that privilege. So here, I don't feel like I have to use that privilege, while at home I do have to use that privilege of passing as straight, and I'm a cis woman, so that makes it easier. Being queer here feels liberating in the sense of like, "That's one less thing I have to worry about, one less thing that I have to stress about." I don't need to choose my language carefully when I'm speaking about this stuff or even making jokes sometimes, you know? In public spaces, in the cafeteria, I can say it wherever and I won't get looks. I won't get judgment. At home, that's just not the case. At home, it's gonna be like, "Either you're really joking or you need conversion therapy." So it's, like, extreme at home, and I think here people really don't care because these people understand that it's normal.
[Is there anything you would like to add?]
Being queer is fun.
I think something cool about Oberlin is that I walk around and I look at everybody and I'm like,"You're gay and you've thought through your gender." At home it feels like people just do things without thinking about them in terms of who they love and who they're attracted to and how they make friendships and how they love people and how they show up for people. I think at Oberlin it feels like everyone is creating themselves all the time in a way that is very not straight and is coming from a million different places. Like, I've learned so much about what lives inside me by seeing the way that other people express their love and the way that other people carry their bodies and change their bodies or don't change their bodies. I think when I do something— like, I just cut all my hair off, and I think that people's responses have been so much more beautiful than they would have been at home. People have told me I look like my mom and people have also told me I look like a little boy, and just like, the responses I get from queer people about cutting my hair off have been so much more affirming than they would be at home.
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